Faith and Finance: A solo journey into solidarity

[1] Growing up the daughter of a banker and an actuary, who are also very faith-filled persons, my relationship with money has always been positive. Be practical, save as much as you can, and share with others, were lessons taught through action in my home. That foundation has surely led me to my beliefs today. When I first share my profession with others, only a few still say, "Responsible investing? Isn't that an oxymoron?" Thankfully, we have seen the effects of such financial stewardship. But how do we bring these values into our own financial choices?
Faith and Finance: A solo journey into solidarity by Kate Walsh

[2] First, we start with responsible investing's beginnings. In the early 1970s, concern was growing among faith-based groups regarding their investments in companies that were operating in South Africa. In 1971, The Episcopal Church (USA) filed the first religiously sponsored shareholder resolution at General Motors which requested that the company withdraw from the country until apartheid had ended. Soon after, other faith organizations joined the cause. From this work, the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility was born. In its 40-year legacy, ICCR, with the ECLA, has promoted corporate transformation from the inside by advocating for just and sustainable practices that lead to long-term business growth. Today, I am one of the lucky persons who work within this coalition.

[3] A year into my current position, I began to consider my own long-term savings. As I researched mutual funds for my IRA options, I was quickly overwhelmed. As someone who lives and breathes this work, why didn't I feel a stronger sense of direction? Why wasn't it clear which socially responsible fund I should choose?

[4] Quite simply, the institutions I represent have the expertise of engaging in justice concerns for decades. Instead of relying on a team of colleagues with incredible knowledge, I had to make these decisions on my own. I did not have focused investment guidelines, company restrictions, or even return targets. I may have understood the jargon and the history of this movement, but suddenly I was in unfamiliar territory. It seemed as if I stood alone with the conviction that I wanted my investments to 'influence good,' Yet I was not sure how to accomplish it.

A holistic approach
[5] I took a step backwards, to sit with my conscience and decide what I thought were paramount concerns for me. I knew that there are three main focuses of socially responsible investing: screening, advocacy, and community development. I wanted to include such pieces, as well as review my overall attitude towards my finances.

[6] Personally, I do believe my money has the ability to be utilized for many beneficial purposes. I decided to look at my financial portfolio as a whole: from my retirement savings, to where I donate my money. It is all wealth, and it is all at my disposal.

[7] From both my background in engaging corporations on social responsibility, as well as navigating the waters of my personal investment strategy, I suggest these tips.

[8] Tip #1
Consider what is most important to you in terms of issues a company might be engaged in. This spans from social issues (e.g human rights, military contracting, private prison companies, and child labor abuses) to environmental issues (e.g. fracking, water usage, and genetically modified food) to governance issues (e.g. executive compensation and diversity of board members).

[9] These may seem like many complex topics, but there is no need to panic. The goal is to see where your preferences lie and then to make investment decisions with these values in mind. While examining your conscience, take a look at your faith tradition's guidance. For example, in 1999, the ELCA adopted the social statement Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All. It calls for "investments, loan funds, hiring practices, skill training, and funding of micro-enterprises and other community development projects that can empower low-income people economically" (

[10] Tip #2
Along these lines, ask, "Cui Bono?" or "For whose benefit?" Is the purpose of your investments to bring only you 'positive returns,' at any cost, at any negative externality to others? Take time with these questions reflect, pray, reread these tips, and talk to others in your community.

[11] Once you have an understanding of your concerns, begin to consider where to invest. For the most part, individuals will purchase mutual funds to receive a basket of stocks, versus a handful they might be able to afford alone. In terms of socially responsible investing, there are different responsibilities to each. In outright purchases of a stock, you must make sure to vote your proxies each year. Proxies are sent to all shareholders once a year to weigh in on certain company decisions. Tools are listed below that can help you decide how to vote. In mutual funds, you should review the company's position on proxy voting, as they will be doing this on your behalf, to ensure it is in alignment with your concerns above. Mutual fund companies must disclose how they vote on their public Web sites. Each year, hundreds of companies receive shareholder resolutions (some from ICCR members) on issues of social, environmental, and governance concerns. If your mutual fund is voting de facto with management each time, is this serving your interests? If not, write to the company about your concerns. If your advisor or fund doesn't offer an SRI choice, they may not be overly supportive of your interests to invest this way. Remember, they are selling you their products.

Socially Responsible Investment (SRI) Mutual Funds
[12] The good news is there are plenty of SRI Mutual Funds to choose from. In 2010, there were 250 socially screened mutual funds in the US with assets of $316 billion, according to US SIF: The Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment.1 US SIF also provides a Mutual Fund Performance Chart showing socially responsible funds offered by their member firms. This public tool allows individual investors to compare cost, financial performance, screens and voting records of competing funds.

[13] As there are three tenets to SRI, screening alone is not enough. This tool simply chooses industries or companies that you or your fund will not invest in. A fund will have stated principles, and often these 'screened' companies are directly in contradiction (e.g. a green fund will not be invested in a large polluter.) Screens are the first step in socially responsible investing, but it is active ownership and engagement of companies that allows investors to work with a company to seek systemic change. It takes time, but your fund should do this if they are committed to SRI.

[14] After narrowing down to a few funds, call their representatives to get a sense of how often they meet with companies and what information they disclose to customers. This will take five minutes and will give you a clear sense of their abilities.

[15] Tip #3
Visit the SIF site and open the screening and advocacy tabs to see what mutual fund may best align with your interests from Tip #1. For example, you may want a fund that does not invest in tobacco but seeks investments in companies that have positive impact in environmental concerns. Once you have narrowed down your choices, see how they have voted proxies in the last year and if they are aligned with your goals. Look at the account requirements to make sure you are eligible and then look at the financial performance tab. Of course you want your investments to be profitable, but now that you have established that you are not just concerned about the bottom line, you can view this through a new lens.

What about returns?
[16] In years past, there has been criticism that SRI may lead to lower overall returns. I cannot provide you with financial advice, given that I am not a licensed advisor, but I can point you towards the facts. New research from Harvard Business School shows that sustainable investing is quite profitable for long-term investors. The study tracked 180 companies in the last 20 years, 90 of which had implemented various social and environmentally responsible policies. These companies significantly outperformed competitors. As Bloomberg explains, "Every dollar invested in a portfolio of sustainable companies in 1993 would have grown to $22.60 by 2011. That beats the rise to $15.40 for a portfolio of companies less focused on sustainability."2 Overall, SRI is doing quite well. For even more information, a listing of over 20 studies can be found here.

[17] This correlation makes sense to those working at ICCR. Faith-based investors have a strong history of seeing risk ahead of the curve. Evidence ranges from filing the first shareholder resolution on global warming in 1991 to asking Wall Street about the inherent risk of derivatives trading ten years before the 2008 financial crash. Long-term and short-term growth always have to be assessed, whether you are an individual investor, or a multinational corporation. But those who can connect the dots, foresee potential problems, and act now seem to be the winners. At ICCR, our faith-based investments have benefitted from our prophetic voice.

[18] The last tenet of SRI is investing in community development. This is a way to connect your money and your ideals in a tangible way. Community development may lead you to consider where you wish to place your money, be it a national bank or a regional credit union. Additionally, this piece of SRI considers loaning money through a community development financial institution (CDFI) to bring about a positive impact and generate a modest return. The Leviticus 25:23 Alternative Fund is an example of a CDFI, named for the verse: "Your land must not be sold on a permanent basis because you do not own it; it belongs to God, and you are like foreigners who are allowed to make use of it." If you'd like to know about CDFIs in your community, visit the opportunity finance network.

[19] Tip #4
I would be remiss if I did not mention donations. I am a firm believer in donating your time and money to causes you believe in. Consider structuring your donations in a monthly schedule, so it becomes part of your way of living and a part of your socially responsible financial mindset. When you add donations to your 'portfolio,' you are adding an immediate approach in having your money work for positive change, while still ensuring long-term sustainability by your SRI funds. Plus, through donations, you are able to more fully commit to concerns you outlined with Tip #1.

[20] There reasonable limits of what one individual might be expected to do in terms of research. The best advice is to be proactive. Do as much as you can before investing, as I suspect once you invest, you will be less likely to change. Still, you are able to roll over your IRA or move your accounts by simply speaking to your manager.

[21] Each year, track performance. Take five minutes to read the quarterly reports, see what companies your fund has invested in and with whom they have engaged. Take another five minutes to pull up their proxy votes and check that you agree with their decisions.

[22] There are additional ways to enhance your SRI strategy. For example, my organization, Tri-CRI, has recently invited individuals to become a more active part of this work, through either a proxy voting service or a partners program for individuals. The proxy voting service allows individuals to cast proxy votes following faith-based guidelines. In addition, our partners program allows individuals to support the work of faith communities in corporate responsibility. Tri-CRI provides partners with model letters to mutual funds, action alerts on social justice issues affecting companies and consumers, and a newsletter of what is trending in the world of SRI. Partners are able to support Tri-CRI's corporate engagement work by holding publicly held companies accountable for their actions. They can thus feel confident that this work of SRI may continue.

[23] When you look holistically at your investments, you realize what choices and power for good you have. Together, these pieces of justice (SRI) and charity (donations) allow us to walk forward into a great world. But both of these feet are needed. One without the other will never fully progress. You and your money can work to transform unjust social structures and respond to immediate needs today.

[24] Personally, the reason I invest my savings in a socially responsible fund is because I care. Those wonderful lessons of be practical, save as much as you can, and share with others, still resonate today, as I want my money to be working for good now. I invest my savings into a fund that has committed employees engaging companies to ensure SRI choices. Furthermore, I want to support practices that avoid, as much as possible, profiting from human trafficking, environmental degradation, and other unethical activities. Finally, I keep my money in an institution that benefits my community, and I donate to non-profits that share my passions.

[25] My final tips in this approach would be three fold. First, start small. This work can overwhelm, but reading, researching, and re-evaluating will allow you to break this down into digestible pieces. Second, reflect. Give yourself the time to think about these choices by praying, and rereading these tips. Finally, DO IT. Give yourself a deadline, preferably within three months. It may not be perfect, but it is a start.

[26] Will I tell you what fund I chose? Nope! The choice is yours and the tools are in your hands. Your journey, like mine, is an individual one. But at the end of it is a committed community working towards a better world. What better investment is there than that?

Kate Walsh is the Associate Director of the Tri-State Coalition for Responsible Investment, with a membership of 40 Catholic congregations. She leads the work on food and water sustainability, child and slave labor abuses, and responsible financial procedures with multinational corporations.

List of Resources



© May 2012
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 12, Issue 3